How to lower your exposure to potentially toxic household products

by Nicky Pellegrino / 24 September, 2018
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• Alexx Stuart advocates changing one thing a week. With personal-care items, she says the place to start is body lotion, as the skin is our largest organ and we tend to use lotion every day. But watch out for green-washing – packaging might claim a product is organic or natural but it may turn out to contain only a small proportion of such ingredients mixed with potentially harmful chemicals.

• Bruce Blumberg recommends avoiding any product that lists “fragrance” as one of its ingredients. The term covers multiple compounds that are used in scents and don’t have to be itemised on labels. (Unilever recently made a commitment to go beyond labelling requirements for personal-care items by disclosing fragrance ingredients online in Europe, starting with France and the UK.)

• At home, think about air quality – fresheners, scented candles, room sprays. What is in them that smells so strongly and are they necessary? Use essential oils instead. 

• Store and heat foods in glass rather than plastic; cook with plain cast-iron or stainless-steel pans instead of non-stick ones; use hardwood chopping boards and wooden or stainless-steel utensils.

• Remove shoes before entering the house to avoid bringing in contaminants. Remove or minimise carpet as it tends to accumulate dust.

• Vacuum often using HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters and dust your house frequently using a damp cloth.

• Identify three high-rotation items in your pantry and switch to organic or spray-free versions. Reduce pesticide residue on fruit and veges with a water and white vinegar rinse.

• Eat fresh, unprocessed whole foods. Avoid canned and highly packaged foods.

The round up on Roundup

Advice from Dr Belinda Cridge, programme leader and lecturer in toxicology at the University of Otago:

The Monsanto case, mentioned in the Listener's article on the alarming new evidence about the chemicals and plastics we use at home, is based on some relatively new evidence. In 2016, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) re-classfied glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup – as a “probable human carcinogen”.

However, the IARC does not generally conduct a full risk assessment, judging where and how contact with the chemical may occur. These additional factors are important in determining the overall risk. For comparison, the IARC has also classified red meat consumption as a probable carcinogen.

The case in the US cited that adjuvants – additives in Roundup beyond the active glyphosate compound – may have had a synergistic effect to cause the cancer. Synergistic effects occur when two chemicals that are relatively benign separately act together to make a small effect much worse. “This means there is a very real possibility that adjuvants in the Roundup mixture accelerated any carcinogenic effects, but to the best of my knowledge this is hypothesised rather than proven.

The plaintiff in the Monsanto case did not need to demonstrate conclusively that glyphosate caused the cancer, only that it was a plausible contributing factor. Also, Monsanto is unable to prove that glyphosate definitely did not cause the cancer. There is still no proof either way.

Roundup isn’t, and has never been, a safe panacea for all weed control. However, Roundup has been used extensively worldwide for a long time, it has a reasonably good safety record and has limited environmental effects – compared to the alternatives.

“My standard advice is for people to not use chemicals where they don’t need to (hand pulling weeds is much safer than any chemical alternative), know what chemicals you are using and be rigorous about safety equipment. This applies to all the chemicals we use, from home cleaners to agrochemicals such as Roundup.”

This article was first published in the September 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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